Bruce Springsteen And The Pace Of Nostalgia

BruceSpringsteen

“History gets diversified. The lungs of yesterday expand. We learn who we are when we see what we came through.”
—Colum McCann

In America, Thanksgiving weekend is the High Holiday of nostalgia.

The same two teams play football games on TV (although in the last few years, the NFL has snuck in a third one on us), we crave food we never otherwise eat, we resume the same conversations with our brother-in-law we left off a year ago, we sleep in our childhood beds, we sing songs and drink beer with the high-school buddies we see once a year, and if we’re lucky, we tear up a little at each part of it.

When telling stories with friends this past weekend, I began to notice how I’m constantly asking myself mid-reminiscence how I possibly made those plans, found that party, learned anything pre-cell phone, pre-GPS, pre-internet. Our parents, of course, don’t have that—their memories from a bit farther back are more locked in. But as a mid-Gen Xer, I wonder to myself: Did I use pay phones, write letters, read maps? Well, of course I did; but it all seems so hazy, even though it wasn’t all that long ago.

Today, the pace of nostalgia is remarkable. A year from now, we’ll write wistful posts about that time when Facebook didn’t have a “dislike” button. There’s no fear of missing out because everything is there, all the time. It all comes to you. The effort now is in how you filter it.

I write and think about music, of which, other than smell, there is nothing more nostalgia-inducing. Hearing long-familiar chords in places where you heard them first … man. So when I heard the remastered “The Price You Pay” on the radio this weekend, it was a flood.

Although I pursue new sound, different sound, emerging sound, there’s one adolescent crush that is forever frozen in greatness. Unfortunately, the internet knows it.

Lately, my feeds have been full of calls to click on Bruce Springsteen’s re-release of his 1980 double album, The River. This Friday’s release, titled The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, features the original two-disc album, the original, original single album that Springsteen turned into the record company in 1979 and then rescinded, another disc of outtakes, and three DVDs.

Granted, it’s for the obsessives among us, but if it all seems rather complicated and expansive, that’s because it is. See, the mystique of Springsteen for decades was how many unheard, unreleased songs there actually were and how meticulous Springsteen was about tracks that made the final cut.

The apocryphal story on 1984’s Born In The USA was there were 80 songs recorded for the released album of 12. And even The River, when issued as a double album, was met with some resistance from critics and fans who suggested it would have been a much more cohesive single record.

Of course, since 1999’s reformation of the E Street Band and the release of Tracks, fans have been “treated” to an onslaught of vault-material. And like the Darkness On The Edge Of Town box, The Promise, a few years ago, I’ll hungrily lap it all up.

But something of that lovely mystery will vanish.

Growing up in the late ’80s, I loved two things equally: Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stone magazine. I parsed every line from every Bruce album and I read RS cover to cover twice while standing at the mailbox.

In 1987, Tunnel Of Love hit the record store in the nearby college town and my sister drove me over early to wait in line before the store opened. I was astounded to realize I was the only one there an hour early. No line, nobody camping out? No college kids agonizingly waiting the three years since I had to hear what direction the best songwriter (and recently one of the biggest rock stars in the world) had gone?

I was 14. It was a record about his marriage falling apart. Looking back, I may have been a little odd.

But what was fascinating to me was what was between the lines, between the songs. Perhaps I didn’t have access to the rest of it, but at the time, it seemed that Bruce did one big national interview per record. And that Rolling Stone interview was largely what you lived on for a couple of years until the next tea leaf arrived. We forget how notoriously cagey Bruce was back in the 20th century.

As late as the early-’90s, I’d actually pay long-distance call rates to listen to someone read the previous night’s set list so I could hear if there was a rarity played or the set opener changed. The reporter on the phone line would give a thumbs-up or thumbs-neutral review, and it was all thrilling.

I’d get off the line and report the whole thing to my college roommate, who was slightly less obsessed than I was. By then, we did at least understand that Bruce wasn’t exactly “cool,” but it didn’t matter a whole lot; he was ours and he was real.

And don’t get me started on the snail-mail tape-trading that consumed most my late teens and early 20s, which was always tougher for Bruce fans than Deadheads because of his tougher stance on audience taping.

But all of it, the rumors of unreleased songs (“better than anything on the album”), the chasing down of crazily named bootlegs, the retellings of sightings at Jersey bars and mostly the speculative conversations, was so fun, so worth it.

When it all gets released (a couple of times now for some of the material on this recent set), it feels a little flat and academic. I hear it and mostly marvel at how Springsteen’s earlier restraint was mostly spot on.

So I’m primed for it. In a few years, we’ll get a Nebraska box. (Although when the demos are the album, where do you find more demos?) And in a few more, probably those 68 or so from the Born In The USA cutting-room floor.

What I suppose isn’t all that revelatory, but still something I’m wrapping my head around, is that we Gen Xers are the last hybrid generation. Those that have visceral memories of finding information, instead of information finding us. We cluck it away as “remember whens.” We’d like to believe we’re too young to be getting this nostalgic.

But we are. And for a lot of us, there’s something thrilling and downright creepy about the world we’re in now.

You hear a song and it sticks a little. The next thing you know, you’re getting a push notification about the singer’s breakup and you’re buying 180-gram vinyl directly from the bass player’s mom, who’s manning the Twitter feed and packing merch boxes.

It’s all fine, I suppose.

I joined an online group for another band recently, and the moderator warned me “just make sure to sign up for the 2014 group. The 2015 group will make you lose your faith in humanity.” Rather than laughing at the ludicrousness of it, I took it as sage advice.

—Mike Mannon